A special look at Aston Villa from Doc Bowles: Sshh - it's the "P" word

I've enjoyed the debate over the last few days. Football may have become a witches' cauldron of money and corruption at the top level, but at least we fans continue to argue vehemently over what is best for the clubs we love.

I have no idea whether Martin O'Neill was ever targeted with a five-year-plan. And I'm not sure I even care. But being a Villa fan, what I do care about is that every season we make some progress. Get better. Close the gap.


Have we done that this season? The statistics are conflicting: we've scored fewer goals than last season, but scored a couple more points. We've consolidated our position and given Everton even more to think about, but the boys from the Emirates hardly lost a moment's sleep.

I know there are young Villa fans out there everywhere who think the answer to everything is for Randy Lerner to open his fat chequebook and buy loads of stars from overseas in the summer.

We could do that. And it may work. But we wouldn't exactly be treading a new route, would we? In fact, we'd be going down the same route as Manchester City, Newcastle, Spurs, Portsmouth and all the others who have tried to assemble squads of bargain-buy superstars from abroad.

Unless I am blind or stupid, we finished comfortably above all those sides this season. Which by definition means we did something right.

So rather than focus on what we did wrong in the latter half of the season, why the hell don't we focus on what we did right to enable us to secure a second consecutive top six finish? I know that will annoy all the kids massively, but some of us have been in football a long time.

1. We kept the same manager. You do not have to be Einstein to work out that continuity works. All the big four apart from Chelsea (who have paid for it), but more importantly Everton - our biggest rivals now - have worked out that continuity is vital. David Moyes is about to enter his seventh season at Everton, and has built a side capable of pushing the top four every season.

It's been a long-term job, and presumably very hard work. I look into his CV, and I don't see him paying fortunes for supposed superstars from abroad. I see a few clever purchases, and a lot of buys that most people wouldn't see. Cahill? Arteta? Great players now - nothing then. Most importantly, the board and the fans kept faith.

2. We bought players who want to fight. Say what you like about quality, O'Neill has a better record on signing "desire" than most other managers. Shearer looked desperate on the sidelines on Sunday, because his team didn't play and didn't fight. Whatever you say about Curtis Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker, Nicky Shorey and James Milner - they want to win and when they come on they fight. And their will to win is obvious.

3. We attacked teams away from home. Villa were ruthless away from home when we had the security of Martin Laursen behind us. It changed in the second half of the season, but I am not sure that many sides could have coped with the loss of a defender who - to my mind as a football coach - had until then been the best central defender in Europe or possibly the world.

4. We built a dressing room. As an ex-player, I know that there is so much tosh talked about squad-building. I know that one of Arsenal's problems is that the English players (the one or two of them) struggle with the fact that French is routinely spoken in the dressing room. I understand Villa have a very strong and "together" dressing room. I happen to believe that the fact they all speak English is a help (cue all the shite about football being a universal language from the spotty teenagers who've never played the game properly).

So what did we do wrong, then?

1. We bought good players, and then played them out of position. Because we didn't fill our squad with enough Premier League standard players, when the going got tough we just didn't have the cover. It would be all too easy to criticise Steve Sidwell, Nigel Reo-Coker and Luke Young - but these lads have been brought in to cover too often when injuries and suspensions have forced it.

I reckon all of them, without exception, could be excellent Premier League players if given the chance to express themselves where they play best. And I don't give a flying stuff if Reading or Middlesbrough or West Ham couldn't get the best out of them - because Villa are better than that.

2. We bottled it at home. Martin O'Neill set the side up to use its pace on the counter attack - and that's why we got so many points away from home where opponents came onto us. But we were largely clueless at Villa Park, where our opponents sat back and played for a point.

The statistics show they usually got one.

Having lost Partik Berger and then Shaun Maloney, two real lock pickers, I was surprised and disappointed that O'Neill moved for Heskey in January instead of an attacking midfield playmaker whose sole purpose would be to use skill and guile to upset, disrupt and break down opposing back fours. That, to me was and remains a mistake and a hole in the manager's thinking.

3. We ignored Europe. This, to me, was a case of crass arrogance. With Van Persie and Fabregas returning and with the signing of Arshavin, it was never going to be likely that Villa would hold off Arsenal for fourth. Sorry boys, not yet! So to send the reserves out for a key UEFA Cup game, when so many of us had already travelled to Iceland, was a mistake. We could have won the UEFA Cup - it was won by Shakhtar Donhetsk - are they so much better than us? No , we could have won the damned thing.

4. We didn't buy Michael Owen from Newcastle. Owen's had a horrible time on Tyneside. But wherever he's been, his goals-per-minute ratio tops the charts. Which means he's officially the best goalscorer in the world.

Now. AC Milan sold us Martin Laursen on the cheap because they knew his knees were knackered. We've had other defenders in the past whose knees were knackered (remember?).

We got two fabulous seasons out of Martin Laursen thanks to Randy's surgeons. Do you think we might be able to get two 25-goal seasons out of Michael Owen thanks to the same surgeons? If if costs us £100k a game, who the hell would care? Apart from David Moyes.

These are just my thoughts. All I have to do now is sit back and get completely savaged. But it comes with the territory.